Shifting narratives: a conversation on justice with Bryan Stevenson

“My mom just texted me to make sure that I tell you she saw you on “60 Minutes,” and she says thank you for helping Mr. Hinton,” I laughed to Mr. Bryan Stevenson as we waited for sound check to begin. He smiled and called her all too kind, with a humble softness that surprised me.
The man in front of me is arguably one of the most important criminal justice advocates of the moment. As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson works daily to eliminate unfair and excessive sentencing, exonerate death row prisoners, and shine light on inmate abuse, including abuse of juveniles and the mentally ill. He recently won a critical ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, which deems mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger unconstitutional.
Ray Hinton, the man my mom excitedly texted about, recently served 30 years in prison on death row for a crime that he did not commit. Today Hinton is free because Stevenson fought tirelessly for justice as his lead attorney for 16 years.
And now he is here at Swarthmore. According to scholar in residence Arto Woodley, the planning process to bring Stevenson to campus has been in the works for about two years. Ben Roebuck ’17 is credited with the initial vision, and the organizing itself was a collaborative effort of Woodley, the President’s Office, Maurice Eldridge ’61, Executive Director of the Lang Center Ben Berger, and Keith Reeves, Professor and Chair Political Science and Faculty Director of the Urban Inequalities and Incarceration Program. The work hasn’t stopped with them. The Black Cultural Center, Lang Performing Arts team, Communications, Media Services, Public Safety, the Bookstore, and the Inn at Swarthmore all labored to make today flawless. Woodley particularly connects the significance of Stevenson’s visit with Reeves’s work in incarceration, research with the Chester Community Charter School on the impact of children who have an incarcerated family member or parent, and with Swarthmore Black Alumni Urban Fellowships to connect students to research and learning opportunities in the field. Through this engaged scholarship approach, there is hope to foster opportunities for deep learning, grounded action, and social change.
As for myself, Stevenson is a long time hero of mine, and so I walked into our interview with a great sense of honor, wondering if I will be able to get anything out besides admiration. I also wondered if it will feel like I’m listening to a famous TED-talker who’s been watched by over 4 million people. It did.
Stevenson and I first spoke about about his critically acclaimed memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”  I spent last semester in an Inside-Out style class called Urban Crime and Punishment, facilitated by Professor Nina Johnson and Philadelphia Programs coordinator Kristi Polizzano,  hosted in nearby Chester State Prison. Half of my classmates are “outsiders” or current college students and half are “insiders” or current inmates. Here, Just Mercy was on our reading list.
I had read the memoir in the past, but the context added unforeseen dimensions. We were in a prison, it was during the election season, and, on a personal level, someone who is near to my heart and had been struggling recently ended up in this system of pain and confusion. The concept of mercy took on a whole new meaning.
A central theme of the read is a commitment to understanding that none of us are the worst thing we’ve ever done. An inside classmate of mine brought up a revelation that would stick with us all. Opening up, he admitted that there were stories of injustice and abuse that made him put the book down and cry. However, he found it more important to recognize which individuals he did not find himself crying for.
“Why do we automatically humanize some people more easily than others?” I asked Stevenson, somewhat rhetorically. “More importantly, how can people actively work towards embracing mercy for everyone equally?”
He paused from autographing the stack of “Just Mercy” copies in front of him, many of which will be given back to incarcerated members of our Inside-Out classes.
“Well I think that’s the thing I’ve been most burdened by during my career,” Stevenson admitted.
“… when I leave the prison or the jail, and when I go into the courtroom I hear people talking about ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’ and ‘robbers’ and’ ‘drug dealers’… as if these are the only words you need to understand that person, and what their value is, and what the appropriate punishment is.”
“When you reduce people to these labels, it makes it very easy to be hostile and punitive and harsh,” he explained. “You’re not being honest if you only focus on that one moment when something violent happens and [not] all the moments that lead up to that, and all the moments that follow that.”
The work starts with getting people to see that there is always a larger story, even when someone does something bad or violent. He admitted that it is indeed easier to identify and sympathize with folks who have done nothing wrong, most notably children. However, our sympathy must extend even to those who we feel are most unworthy of it. Stevenson appreciated my use of the concept “radical humanization” to process this sentiment, a term coined by our very own Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan.
“I’m in more of a role as a prosecutor … I want to indict our country for its silence on this history: the fact that we have enslaved people with very little accountability, or lynching, or segregation. But I want to do it with an awareness shaped by my criminal justice work, which is that we’re not just a ‘genocide nation’ or ‘slave nation,’” Stevenson said.
He draws a powerful analogy between our nation and our nation’s many prisoners.
“Nobody gets out of prison or on parole without showing signs of remorse and acknowledgement. I do ultimately want liberation [for this country] rather than just punishment,” he said with firm kindness.
To my fascination, Stevenson describes his subversive interest in increasing our collective shame as a tool for societal progress.
“One of the challenges in this country is that we’ve become such a punitive society. We don’t feel comfortable acknowledging our mistakes because we fear the punishment that comes with wrongdoing,” he said.
“What we do to people in our jails and prisons is frequently shameful. If we experience that shame, if we recognize that shame, it’ll motivate us to do better. Shame is not a bad experience, it’s not a bad motive, it’s not a bad consciousness … if it leads to something restorative, redemptive.”
“Children are obviously an important part of your work. Right now in Philadelphia, advocates are working to overturn Act 33, which was a 1996 amendment to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act …” I began.
Act 33 says that children under the age of 18 are to be automatically tried as adults and placed in adult facilities if they’re accused of a violent crime. I recently learned about this unusual, “tough-on-crime” era legislation from Philadelphia’s Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project. In some instances under this act, children, who often cannot afford bail, will sit in holding cells for years before their case moves to trial. And this is without even being convicted of a crime. In this political climate, how do we go about changing these dangerous laws and norms?
“I think we have to change the narratives that gave rise to those policies,” Stevenson nodded. “We let people come through our country, and say that some kids aren’t kids, and we allowed [them] to label these children as ‘superpredators’. So if you’re making policies for ‘superpredators,’ its very easy to say put them in adult jails and prisons and treat them like the worst of the worst.”
But that whole notion of a superpredator is a lie, originating in the “tough-on-crime” political discourse of the 1990s. “It’s actually kind of a racially influenced lie,” Stevenson acknowledged. “We’ve got to get people to confront that and understand that. And once we do, we have to make a new commitment to children.”
We discuss the current state of education: how our commitment to children is formally measured by how we treat privileged children. Stevenson advocates that we radicalize education through reorientation: we must first look at how we treat the children who are dealing with trauma and abuse, neglect and poverty.
“I want the Department of Education to make suspension rates and expulsion rates one of the key metrics of whether a school is good or bad [as opposed to the current metrics of test scores and performances]. Because if you suspend a lot of students and you expel a lot of students … that means you’re failing some of the children who most desperately need education as a mechanism for changing outcomes.”
I was reminded of a recent presentation by Princeton University Professor Ruha Benjamin, who specializes in the very-interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, biotechnology, race-ethnicity and gender, health, and biopolitics. She demonstrated that if you type in the word “underserved” and then the word “overserved” into Microsoft Word, one of the words will appear with a red line under it. You can guess which one, and what that says about how we accept some communities as problematic and others as natural.
In terms of the concrete challenges marginalized students face, Stevenson says that they are in some ways greater than they’ve ever been.
“I had to deal with segregation as a child, but I didn’t have to deal with a school system that was determined to criminalize me and demonize me,” he said.
Conscious of time, I know that there is one last question I need to ask him. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ultimately wanting America not to become post-racial, but to become post-racist.
“[Ta-Nehisi] Coates articulates this as ‘we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.’” I invited Stevenson to comment on his colleague’s vision and how realistic is it that we’ll one day reach a point where such racial terms are essentially apolitical.
“I agree that the objective is to not eliminate racial difference or diversity, but to make it not meaningful in a ways that burdens some and benefits others,” he explained.
“You should be able to live in a world where … if you have a son, you feel great. If you have a daughter you feel great. If your child is black you feel great, if your child is white, if your child is brown … we don’t live in a world like that. There are preferences and challenges that you’re going to have to meet and overcome. As long as that’s true, none of us can really claim to be free,” Stevenson said. This invokes for me a sentiment reminiscent of late voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hammer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
The logic here is compelling. If you have something that you didn’t earn, while you’re standing to next to somebody that doesn’t have anything and who is suffering, it should implicate your ability to enjoy what you have. You’re burdened by that (“if you’re a human being with decency and compassion” Stevenson clarified, but with the optimism that most human beings indeed are.)
“So we all have an interest in creating that world. And I do think it’s achievable,” Stevenson encouraged.  “We’ve seen narratives shift. We just have to see on this issue.”
Domestic violence seems to serve as one such case of shifting narratives. Fifty years ago, we did not as a society value the victims of domestic violence like we do today. We gave voices to women who are suffering, we began to recognize how they’re not responsible for the violence they receive; all of which serves as powerful evidence for the capacity to change. Stevenson argues that we have to become the same way when it comes to race and racial equity.
At the end of our conversation, Stevenson thanked me for taking the time to interview him. I cannot overstate his genuine humbleness.
In the all-too impressive company of Reeves, Stevenson, and Woodley, we made our way to the Inn at Swarthmore, where I joined former classmates, local community advocates, and others involved in Stevenson’s campus visit. Here, we’re hosting a dinner in Stevenson’s honor.
I was greeting others when I notice an older a man with a pink shirt and glasses, smiling brightly and laughing with some friends of mine. As I’m introduced to him and shake his hand, a strange sense of familiarity comes over me.
“Where do I know you from?” I immediately ask.
“You look familiar too,” the man beamed.
A few months ago, I had participated in a think-tank style workshop hosted in Graterford State Prison, where insiders and outsiders came together to discuss juvenile justice. John* was a juvenile lifer, meaning that the state had intended for him to serve his life in prison for a crime he committed as an adolescent.
After decades of waiting, John was released from prison two weeks ago. And now here we were — together on the outside — celebrating the work of Stevenson and those like him.
After dinner, we returned to campus to find hundreds of people eagerly awaiting the main event: Stevenson’s talk to the community. The hour of storytelling left many of us feeling as inspired as ever to do our part in the collective struggle against excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and racial inequality … all while keeping mercy at the forefront.  
“His lecture was a perfect capstone to Black History Month because of his work with injustice in the U.S. of incarceration and Swarthmore College’s tie to that same phenomena,” Woodley explained. “[He] reminds us that this country still struggles with recognizing and dignifying the humanity of people, with people of color and especially African Americans. The injustice in the system of incarceration is a proxy for the larger societal challenge America has yet to conquer.”
While it’s impossible to share all of Stevenson’s insights, I find it important to reiterate the four solutions he offered to our legacy of injustice and inequality. First is to “get proximate” to the communities most in need. Second, as mentioned earlier, is to change the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies. His third solution is to stay hopeful as a form of power. Finally, Stevenson dares us all to make the conscious decision, to become more comfortable with doing uncomfortable things for a greater good.
He speaks of great losses and wins. From heartbreaking goodbyes with clients who are executed, to the feeling of purpose when he’s able to walk a client to freedom. We responded with tears and standing ovations, even from those of us who had heard many of the stories shared before (myself included).
“What is it about us [as a society] that we want to kill all the broken people?” Stevenson finally asks the audience, invoking the sense of desperation needed to address this reality.
“I do what I do because I’m broken too, but there’s a power in brokenness.”

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